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The Fall of Rome

The Disappearance of Comfort

It is currently deeply unfashionable to state that anything like a ‘crisis’ or a ‘decline’
occurred at the end of the Roman empire, let alone that a ‘civilization’ collapsed and a
‘dark age’ ensued. The new orthodoxy is that the Roman world, in both East and West,
was slowly, and essentially painlessly, ‘transformed’ into a medieval form. However,
there is an insuperable problem with this new view: it does not fit the mass of
archaeological evidence now available, which shows a startling decline in western
standards of living during the fifth to seventh centuries. This was a change that affected
everyone, from peasants to kings, even the bodies of saints resting in their churches. It
was no mere transformation – it was decline on a scale that can reasonably be described
as ‘the end of a civilization’.

The Fruits of the Roman Economy

The Romans produced goods, including mundane items, to a very high quality, and in
huge quantities; and then spread them widely, through all levels of society. Because so
little detailed written evidence survives for these humble aspects of daily life, it used to
be assumed that few goods moved far from home, and that economic complexity in the
Roman period was essentially there to satisfy the needs of the state and the whims of the
elite, with little impact on the broad mass of society. However, painstaking work by
archaeologists has slowly transformed this picture, through the excavation of hundreds of
sites, and the systematic documentation and study of the artefacts found on them. This
research has revealed a sophisticated world, in which a north-Italian peasant of the
Roman period might eat off tableware from the area near Naples, store liquids in an
amphora from North Africa, and sleep under a tiled roof. Almost all archaeologists, and
most historians, now believe that the Roman economy was characterized, not only by an
impressive luxury market, but also by a very substantial middle and lower market for
high-quality functional products.
By far the fullest and most telling evidence comes from the study of the different types of
pottery found in such abundance on Roman sites: functional kitchenwares, used in the
preparation of food; fine tablewares, for its presentation and consumption; and amphorae,
the large jars used throughout the Mediterranean for the transport and storage of liquids,
such as wine and oil. Pottery reports make for dry reading, but they contain a mass of
data that we can readily exploit to shed light on the Roman economy and its impact on
daily life. We can tell when and where pots were made, from their shape and fabric, and
assess the levels of expertise that went into their manufacture; and we can tell how far
charting their presence on domestic sites. Furthermore, the picture we can build up for
pottery also provides an insight into the production and exchange of other goods, or
which much less archaeological evidence survives. Pots, although not normally the
heroes of history books, deserve our attention.
Three features of Roman pottery are remarkable, and not to be found again for many
centuries in the West: its excellent quality and considerable standardization; the massive
quantities in which it was produced; and it widespread diffusion, not only geographically
(sometimes being transported over many hundreds of miles), but also socially (so that it
reached, not just the rich but also the poor). In the areas of the Roman world, this level of
sophistication is not seen again until perhaps the fourteenth century, some 800 years later.


Excerpt from The Fall of Rome by Bryan Ward-Perkins.

UPDATE:The next post in this series of excerpts, “Monte Testaccio,” is now up! LINK

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Recent Comments

  1. Alun

    The Fall of Rome

    While I may feel a little guilty at still not having Aquarius up and running because of my photo experiments, theres a good chance that I wouldnt have had it ready for this week anyway. I keep reading interesting stuff.
    The OUP blog has a…

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